Moran: Why is attendance down at the Lake County Fair?

It’s a headline we’ve seen before when it comes to the Lake County Fair, occurring as it does during the month when our old friend oppressive humidity settles in for an extended visit:

“Heat Wilts Lake County Fair Attendance.”

You probably won’t be seeing that one for 2014, when we’re arguing about the appropriateness of using the term Polar Vortex in July. But you did see it in July of 1999, when days with a 100-degree heat index held attendance to 197,193 — down from more than 250,000 in 1998.

That once-lamented 1999 figure would be about 100,000 more than the Lake County Fair has drawn in recent years. Granted, it is now a five-day festival rather than a six-day one, but for whatever reason, 200,000 visitors is the stuff of memories since the whole deal moved to its new digs on Peterson Road in 2009.

Attendance that inaugural year was 138,000, down 20,000 from the last stand at the old fairgrounds on Route 120. It dropped below the 100,000 mark in 2011 and remains there, confounding those who can remember when the county fair would draw 35,000 people on a single date, as it did on opening day in 1997.

Many people blame the cost, since children used to be free at the old fairgrounds, and they would arrive in immense flocks with a single adult. Other people blame the location — one observer told me last week that the new fairgrounds is “too far out in the county,” even though it’s a mere five minutes south of the old place.

Whatever the case, it can’t be blamed on a lack of rituals or traditions. Walking the grounds this week, the signs for calzones and meatball sandwiches and lemonade shake-ups and jumbo turkey legs looked the same in 2014 as they did in 1994.

Sure, there were new signs, including this one: “The Lake County Fairgrounds is a quasi-public area with no expectation of privacy. You may be photographed and videotaped for publicity purposes.”

Nothing alarming there — I don’t know of anyone who has an expectation of privacy in the Smartphone Age.

Otherwise, the county fair is the same as it ever was. The exhibition hall still has the same guy demonstrating non-stick pans and that same sunglasses stand with the “buy one get two free” sign.

The Lake County Democratic and Republican parties still have massive exhibit spaces, and this election year, someone had the adventurous thought to put them nearly side by side — separated by the Citizen Corps of Lake County, a volunteer group that helps out with emergency responses. Hopefully, they won’t be needed to break up a paper-throwing squabble between the politicians.

If new traditions are needed, we might have stumbled upon one Thursday night: a fireworks display, which wasn’t necessarily a new feature for the event but is certainly the first for those with long memories.

A busy evening of other responsibilities found my daughter and I jumping into the car at the last minute to check out these county-fair fireworks. As we came in from the east on Peterson Road, the orange glow of construction barrels gave way to the brilliant colors of the carnival midway, looking somehow more attractive than if it had been set up outside the Big Lots in Round Lake Beach.

The thought of escaping the fairgrounds property at closing time sent me north to the Prairie Crossing Metra lot, where we pretty much had the place to ourselves when the first rockets took off around 10 p.m. It was the perfect spot to view a display that should become an annual occurrence.

Maybe next year, we’ll boost attendance by actually watching the fireworks from inside the gates.

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